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Iron Age


Summary – This paper outlines and updates a hierobotanical theory with respect to Papaver somniferum, regarding the reinterpretation of the anthropomorphic stelae of the Dauni. Monuments that have conventionally been considered as being related to burial rites but instead hold precious data on an organized hierocratic system images, that is comparable to the opium poppy, has they contain symbols and stories in which there is an inherent sacramental use of this psychoactive plant.  The following text is presented as a summary of previous interpretations and an introductory essay to a new theory on which the author is presently working.

Extrat:   Eleusis, Journal of Psychoactive Plants and Compounds New Series, 2002-2003. 6/7   Pagg. 71-82

pdf   in   italiano estratto da Ipogei, quaderni dell’IISS  “S. Staffa” di Trinitapoli, Dicembre 2007, n.1, pp. 83-92


Was opium a religion for the ancient Dauni (1)? Yes, in part. At least as regards the cult of their female statue – stelae. This has emerged from the study that I conducted some years ago on the symbology and semantics of these monuments, characterised by carvings in a typically ideographic language (LEONE 1990/1996b). As a pre – literate civilization, the Dauni expressed their concept simply, by means of a very liberal use of representative art and symbols, handing us down iconographic documentation of such body as to be compared only to that of the Valcamonica (2). The Dauni artists only occasionally decorated their vases with figures, decorating them instead with very original geometrical designs of high artistic merit, and reserving their story telling for their priestly sculptures. Thanks to this documentary role the funeral stelae form rare stone books with which to “see” the world of the Dauni.

The carved narratives take up all the available space between the casing and the accessories that decorate the monuments. The stories are of various kinds and refer to tens of scenes, some of which form a pattern of myths and significant events in the liturgy of their cult based on the carvings. Among the apparently easily decipherable scenes it is possible to identify individuals hunting, fishing, fighting, travelling in boats, combing their hair, chatting, walking in procession, carrying offerings, performing magic-therapeutic rituals and perhaps even initiations. Some of the legendary scenes open a new door on Mediterranean psychopharmacology.


Almost certainly the meaning of the narratives goes beyond their superficial interpretation and pushes into the meanderings of a complex religious environment, very distant from us in time and clearly with highly ethnic connotations. Considering the context of the discovery of these finds and their narrative  decoration, one has the impression of being in front of fragments of a well organized and stratified hierocratic system, from which the roles of the participants and the meaning of what is taking place have to be identified. The whole thing appears as a great hierocratic cult, carried out by various prelates and disciples but centred on a pair of principal sacred figures, one male and the other female. These are portrayed on two classes of stelae and on a particular class of ceramic vases. Their identifying attributes are: the poppy for the female figures: and body armour for the male ones. The psychoactive role of the poppy defines the more numerous category of monuments, the female ones (fig. 1) the warrior-like and martial character define the less numerous category of monuments, the male ones (fig. 2), or the paredro (a virile figure derived from the anthropomorphic stelae of the Copper Age). In the religion of the statue-steale and of the anthropomorphic statue-menhir of the post Neolithic, the male and female role sexually personify the dualistic universe of primitive philosophy (LEONE 2000a).

The interpretation of the hierocratic function of the stale is being put forward by this writer and derived from the identification of the magic poppy carved on the monuments. As with every innovative theory this one too has had difficulty in being accepted. It has not been questioned in academic circle though it has not even been put up along side other theories that have now been in circulation for thirty years, from when the stelae were being studied by Silvio Ferri. Despite his classical preparation, Ferri never hypothesized that these monuments were two sacred beings. He held them to be tomb sculptures, stereotyped effigies of warriors and notables, and tried to explain the narrative in terms of death and burial, continuing to interpret them under the status of death. The  characters portrayed in these scenes were “actors” that were participating in rituals performed for a death person (FERRI 1962/71).

His theory lacks archaeological and semiological support. As far as it concerns their discovery, it has to be taken into account that non stele (of about 2000 finds) has ever been found in a position positively related to burial or death. As for semiotics it has to be said, instead that the archaeology of the images investigated the derivative structure of the story and explained the figures based on their graphic association. This method ha highlighted the semantic meaning of the botanic symbology  and has revealed the therapeutic arguments, of divination and initiation.


One needs to imagine the stelae as originally being colored, covered with carved scenes, fixed in the ground (or rather in sand) and concentrated in two or three sanctuaries in the former lagoon between Siponto and Salapia (the plain standing behind the Gulf of Manfredonia), one of the most evocative places in Puglia. The former lagoon was the cradle of their cult, located on islands surrounded by river mazes. The figures reflect this habit blessed by the gods.

As noted previously, their form a couple composed of: a man dressed in precious embossed armour, complete with sword at his belt, shield on his shoulder and heart guard at the centre of his chest; and a woman covered by a sumptuous dress, decorated by extremely geometric designs, adorned with necklaces, decorative pins, pendants, amulets, gloves or tattoos, and always with two circular pendants ( her identifying attributes that seem to oscillate, hanging at her waist. These object are the pivotal point of this botanic interpretation and they refer, but in a way that is not altogether obvious, to some function of the opium poppy. They indirectly recall the upturned plant and accurately define the investiture of the female character portrayed on the stone. A sort of Queen of the poppies.

The semantic existence of this beautiful lilac-violet coloured flower has up to now passed unobserved, both because its form is too schematised, and because conventional archaeology avoids interpretations that deal with religions centred on the use of drugs. It would be too hard to accept. Consequently this semiological data has either not been accepted or badly interpreted.

However there is a connecting thread that allows the poppy to be identified: in the decoration, in the distinctive spherical vases with a typically Daunian lip and funnel (fig.3 ), in the baton – sceptre used by the person – medicine as a pharmacological metaphor, and in the large identifying circles that were originally coloured a dark red-violet. The common elements here can be grasped from faithful reproduction of the pod, which fortunately is well defined in many cases:

the leaves along the stem, the pod complete with its stigmatic disk, the stalk to which the petals are joined at the base of the sphere (fig. 4). Let us now analyse in more depth the question of the spherical shape of the oscillum attributi.

For Silvio Ferri they were oscillum apotropaici: magic resonant circles or metallic cymbals (kymbala), having the function of warding off evil spirits by means of their threatening sound. He did not give them any particular importance, not even on the rare occasions where he mistook them for pomegranates (FERRI, Stele Daunie V, 1965; 148).

For this class of monuments, the symbolic centrality of the oscillating circles is of the utmost importance. There is not even one female stele that does not have an attribute of this type. Despite being reduced in size and number, they never completely disappear. Originally they were large and detailed, exhibiting those defining characteristics which allowed them to be correctly identified botanically. The same characteristics that clarified the function of other similar object and the meaning of some scenes that have been misunderstood till now.


We can understand how much the Dauni knew about the effects of opium by observing some scenes of therapeutic treatment, in which the administration of the narcotic is hinted at by the presence of patients (or initiates) that are being cured by therapists-doctors (medical attendants); these armed with narcotic poppies as if they were instruments of power (batons-sceptre). In a pair of scenes the seated patient is depressed (fig. 5a) or in pain (fig. 5b) and it is evident that the person standing in front of them is trying to help by administering a potion. In another scene, of extraordinary clarity and simplicity, another medical attendant is treating the big toe of the sick person, anaesthetized by the poppy that he is holding in his right hand (fig. 6).  In the Museum of Manfredonia, where the monuments are on show to the public, the explanatory note describes the carved story as: scene of ritual combat.

In the same way the scene in Fig. 5a has been described as “…The woman, with a rich cape, …….and with a plait ending in a round knot  [the pod of our poppy]… offering a helmet to the dead person.” (FERRI 1962:110). Instead of only physical healing, this “pharmacological” application can be understood in a wider sense: of a metaphorical, magical cure, in which the therapists-priests or, more likely the priestesses, have responsibility for the sacred plant and are official of the cult, dressed and combed as  on the female stelae.

Another series of scenes, instead, bring to mind the rites of passage of initiates. The initiate is being held upside down bye two therapists that are holding him by his feet. The fact that one of them has  a poppy (fig. 7a) or that the initiate’s head is buried (fig.7b) (3), or that he is being held up by the foot by a hierocratic figure seated on a throne (fig. 7c), makes a shamanic interpretation of this ritual act plausible, comparable “to out of body”.

It is known that being upside down, expressed in a scared context or combined with stairs, is part of the shamanic symbology of an extrasensorial journey, of the ascent or descent between the underworld and the world above. Also the oscillating poppies, hanging upside down from her belt, perhaps symbolizing the precious sowing of the poppies in the world below, and therefore, the sacred world that for Daunian ideology seems to be the seat of revelation and the kingdom of dream like divination. But also the home of the spirits that have knowledge and that can teach.

An individual talking with a spirit is probably what is engraved on a extremely interesting stele (fig.8). He is portrayed as talking with a monstrous dog, after having drunk a “psychotropic” potion (the scene of the offering of the drink is higher up). The ideological connection between narcotic poppy and the underworld is eternal and archetypical. Together with the scenes of a magic-therapeutic order there are also included those with individuals entranced by altered states of consciousness (SMC). An obvious situation, in that sense, is one in which a man is in SMC and is travelling suspended, upside down, and being transported by a monstrous spirit (in the presence of a third even more frightening one) (fig.9). The presence of monsters and fantastical beings interested Ferri very much who saw them as revealing the underworlds to the dead portrayed in the monuments.

There are also hierophant figures that seems to be in trance or in a “prophetic” attitude. They are seated on thrones sometimes in the presence of a disciple of the poppy cult (recognizable by her singular hairstyle: a big poppy entwined in her long hair) or an interlocutor that seem to be possessed and are playing an instruments similar to a harp, are surrounded by birds and being paid homage to by disciples that are carrying gifts or jars shaped as poppies. A precise symbology and shamanic instrumentation are also present here. The harp and the birds. The first that enraptures and transports with is sound, the second that recalls  the states of flight and lightness typical of the psychonaut.

Events centred on esoteric needs, as in the altered states of consciousness that allow travel in revealing dreams populated by monsters and ancestors, are found in cults of a mystical, oracle and initiate character. It is not possible to ignore these, nor is it possible not to draw any parallels. Among the great priestly cults, noted to the Dauni and close to them (in both time an space) are those of Delphi and Eleusis. Both are suspected of being involved with the use of psychoactive substances, even though aimed at a priestly “specialization”: the oracle for Delphi, initiation for Eleusis. Both, more or less, where subject to various taboos. However it is premature to define the Dauni’s stelae cult as a specialization, or rather, I hold that there might not be only one. I can be said though, at least according to the richness of the figures, that one can recognize  its primitivism, its being indigenous and hybrid at the same time, preclassic and anchored to the memory of an ancient and matriarchal Mediterranean.


In the light of the hierobotanical discovery the monuments appear to be the “portraits” of a couple worshipped as idols. We can see the same couple on a number of vase fragments. The pottery makers always represented them in the same way, As to evoke an understanding of the origins, a hierogamy of roles (perhaps on aeneolithic basis): one in front of the other while symbolically holding a mysterious plant (not always identifiable). The female figure is a goddess or a sacred figure that seems to be handing the plant to the warrior, armed at times with a sword and at others with a spear. She is always dressed in a long robe down to her breast is covered with strange protuberances and at time personifies a plant (fig. 11). She stands firmly planted on the ground, contrary to the male figure who instead seems suspended, and in one expressive case she is together with an anthropomorphic giant poppy (fig. 12).

The male stelae are the agents of this anonymous figure, a goddess or a prophetess that is found in mythological references and known to us as Demeter and Cassandra, The first in close relationship to the poppy, the other prophetess (misunderstood daughter of Priamo) whose exclusive cult in Daunia is mentioned by LICOPHRON in one of this works written in the Alexandrine epoch; just three centuries after the disappearance  of the stone stelae (Alessandra vv. 1126-1140). Alexander’s verses are extremely interesting for their priestly and poppy theory, but I will leave their description to another time.

The Greek mother goddess is the figure linked most to the poppy. She also the “goddess of the earth”, rooted in the chthonic worlds, goddess of initiation that comes from the underworlds, symbolized by a rebirth, that follows an cataleptic and cathartic death. She is the sedative for physical pain and is the giver of the poppy to man (according to one of the many versions of rebirth in the Eleusinian cult). The sense of rebirth, codified in the Eleusinian Misteries, is backed up by the intertwining of cults with the psychoactive agents of  Kikeon, suspected to be a fungal nature. (WASSON et al. 1978).

The poppy too, though secondary in the mycological question of kikeon, must have had an essential role in the cult of Demeter. Considering its symbolic centrality MERLIN (1984) has proposed that opium might be the neutralizing antidote for the risks of intoxication from ergot (Claviceps purpurea) – the hallucinogen contained in kikeon. The debate on the semantic value of the mysterious symbols of Eleusis thickens the religious meaning of the poppy (SAMORINI 2000). Also for the Daunian cult there is suspicion that the combination of psychoactive agents might explain the behavioural phenomenology of people when hallucinating. The study of the stelae, then, has to be extended to the fields of chemistry, religion and philology. There is still a lot discover in relation to this, and work is already progress.


1.            The italic population of the Dauni living between the 9th and 1st centuries B.C. Daunia corresponds to the present province of Foggia, in south east Italy.

2.            Rich figurative carvings were sculptured, in rock, in this noted alpine valley from the Epipalaeolithic to the Roman era

3.            Ferri interpreted these symbolically decapitated characters  as being objects, as ”mill stones for grinding wheat” being used by two millers (FERRI, 1962: 107)


CITRONI M. C. 1991 <Lo smembramento e la caduta dall´alto; tracce di cultura sciamanica in molte incisioni rupestri  preAtti IX Symposio di Valcamonica, Capo di Ponte (Brescia).

FERRI S., 1962, Stele “daunie”. Un nuovo capitolo di archeologia protostorica, Bollettino d’Arte, n. 1/2, pp. 103-114 (riprodotto parzialmente in Nava, 1988).

FERRI S., 1963, Stele daunie II, Bollettino d’Arte, n. 1/2, pp. 5-17

FERRI S., 1963, Stele daunie III, Bollettino d’Arte, n. 3, pp. 197-206

FERRI S., 1964, Stele daunie IV, Bollettino d’Arte, n. 1, pp. 1-13

FERRI S., 1965, Stele daunie V, Bollettino d’Arte, n. 3/4, pp. 147-152

FERRI S., 1966, Stele daunie VI, Bollettino d’Arte, n. 3/4V, pp. 121-132

FERRI S., 1967, Stele daunie VII, Bollettino d’Arte, n. 4, , pp. 209-221

FERRI S. 1971 –      <Stele Daunie: veste classica e contenuto protostorico>

Bollettino Centro Camuno Studi Preistorici vol.  VII Capo di Ponte pp. 41-54

GAVRES R. 1983 I miti greci  Longanesi,  Milano.

KRITIKOS P.G., PAPADAKI 1976 <The history of the poppy and of opium and their expansion, in antiquity in the

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LEONE M. L.  1990 <Raro esempio di decorazione nel geometrico Daunio>,

Notiz. Archeoclub di San Ferdinando di P. (Foggia). In prima pagina

LEONE M. L. 1992 <Dal frammento di Salapia alle stele daunie>

Notiz. Archeoclub di San Ferdinando di P. (Foggia), pag. 2.

LEONE M. L. 1994 <Nuove acquisizioni sulla ceramica geometrica daunia>

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LEONE M. L. 1995 < Oppio. “Papaver Somniferum”, la pianta sacra ai Dauni delle stele>

Bollettino Centro Camuno Studi Preistorici, vol. 28, pp. 57-68.

Comparso sul sito

LEONE M. L. 1996a <Ancora sulle “Stele Daunie”> ,

La Capitanata, Rassegna di Vita e di Studi della Provincia di Foggia,

ann. 32°-33° (1995/96), nuova serie n. 3-4, pp. 141-170.

Comparso nella pagina

LEONE M. L. 1996b <Nuove proposte interpretative sulle stele daunie>,

Bollettino Centro Camuno Studi Preistorici, vol. 29, pp. 57-64.

LEONE M. L. 2000a  <L’ ideologia delle statue-menhir e statue -stele in Puglia e la concettualità del simbolo

fallico antropomorfo>, DEI NELLA PIETRA Quaderni dell’Associazione Lombarda

Archeologica, Milano : 119-145.

LEONE M. L. 2000b < Melagrana o Papaver somniferum?>

Boll.  Archeoclub di San Ferdinando di P. (Foggia), pag. 2.

LEONE M. L. 2002  <Scrittura ideografica sulle stele daunie>

Boll.  Archeoclub di San Ferdinando di P. (Foggia). In prima pagina

Comparso anche nella pagina

MERLIN M. D. 1984  <On the Trail of the Ancient Opium Poppy>, Associated University

Press. London-Toronto

MERTENS J. 1984  <Ordona V>, Tomo XVI, Ist. St. Belgi di Roma

SAMORINI G. 2000 <Un contributo alla discussione dell’etnobotanica dei misteri eleusini>

ELEUSIS Piante e composti psicoattivi,  nuova serie 2000. 4: 3-53

SEEFELDER M. 1990 <Oppio.  Storia  sociale  di una droga dagli egizi  a  oggi>. Garzanti, Milano

WASSON R.G., C.A.P. RUK, A. HOFMANN 1978 <The Road  to Eleusis. Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries> Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York & London




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